Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Philosopher-craftsmen: interesting times for research communications professionals

Plato - snapshot from Raphael's The School of Athens. Image from
Plato, the Greek philosopher
By Emilie Wilson

Two exciting new publications have landed on my desk today :
(1)  Knowledge, policy and power in international development: a practical guide and the latest edition of the IDS Bulletin,
(2)  Action research for development and social change.

Knowledge, policy and power in international development: a practical guide, not a definitive model

The first, a book by researchers at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), aims to be a "practical guide to understanding how knowledge, policy and power interact to promote or prevent change". However, the authors are quick to put in a disclaimer:

"...we acknowledge that, although some models provide useful analyses of some aspects of the interface between knowledge and policy, it is impossible to construct a single one size-fits-all template for understanding such a complex set of relationships".

That is not to say the authors aren’t aiming high: "this book seeks to provide: 
  • a state-of-the-art overview of current thinking about knowledge, policy and power in international development 
  • present empirical case studies that provide concrete examples of how these issues play out in reality 
  • offer practical guidance on the implications of this knowledge base” 
I’m looking forward to getting stuck in, and am particularly intrigued by their “Questions this section will help you to answer” approach to structuring some of the content. I’m also looking out for references to work by IDS Knowledge Services around knowledge intermediation (well, of course I am!).

Action research for development and social change

The second, edited by Danny Burns, who heads up the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS, is the latest edition of the IDS Bulletin.

IDS Bulletins come in a variety of shapes and sizes – some very theoretical, others with more practical examples. This one appears to provide a nice balance of both, and has a stellar cast of leading lights at IDS on action research and participatory approaches.

Again, there is a disclaimer "we have not sought to draw firm conclusions or a single 'theory of practice'" but then a helpful identification of recurrent themes around which to hang your reflections as you read along: power and complex power relations, learning, and action.

Both these works, I think demonstrate what an exciting time it is to be working in the realm of research uptake, weaving analysis into practice, and giving us communications professionals space to reflect on the impact of our work.

I’m not a development practitioner, I’m a communications professional...

In my early days at IDS, when I had more enthusiasm than experience, I remember a conversation with a colleague in which I referred to us as “development practitioners” and she responded “I am not a development practitioner, I am a librarian”. She’s quite right, in many ways – a librarian with a whole heap of experience in international development.

I guess that description could apply to me too: a communications professional experienced in international development. Just as others are engineers, agronomists, doctors, project managers...experienced in international development.

That is, we should not forget, while we muse on power, complexity and social change, that we are also master craftsmen. Our understanding of communication, our craft, is based on an understanding of human behaviour. While it needs to be nuanced by peoples culture, worldview, literacy, all manner of contextual factors - we remain craftsmen who understand what to look for and how to build it in different contexts. It provides us with a lens through which to see the world.

Hopefully, with my bedside reading all set up now for the next month, the theory (and practical guidance) will percolate into my communications practice and I can aspire (grossly paraphrasing Plato) to being a ‘philosopher-communicator’...(albeit with less beard!)

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Reflections on the K* summit: beyond K-Star-wars?

By Catherine Fisher

It was only a matter of time before someone made the KStarWars joke at the K* Conference that took place at the end of April in Canada. I’m only sorry it wasn’t me!

However, the K* Conference was notable not for its battles, but for the sense of commonality that emerged among the participants and for the momentum for future action it generated. 

The K* summit aimed to connect practitioners working across the knowledge-policy-practice interfaces to advance K* theory and practice. Its aim was to span the different sectors and contexts and different terms under which this kind of work is undertaken, for example Knowledge Mobilisation (KMb), Knowledge Sharing (KS), Knowledge Transfer and Translation (KTT).  Hence K*:  an umbrella term that attempts to bypass terminology discussions. 

This blog post provides links to some of the great reporting from the event, acknowledges some of the critiques that the event raised and points to the next steps for K*.    
The opening presentation highlighted how K* is about supporting processes of exchange and engagement between knowledge-policy-practice interfaces not the achievement of particular outcomes. It was great to hear this point made by John Lavis, who has something of a guru status in K* in health. Other important points were about learning about context and what that means, not just saying its important!
Another great metaphor courtesy of Charles Dhewa. The importance of multiple knowledges, knowledge hierarchies and the role of K* actors in helping to facilitate interactions between those knowledges was a recurring theme. E.g. see video by Laurens Klerxx talking about multiple knowledges and innovation brokers. 
As David Phipps explains in this video, participants from Canada, Ghana and Argentina were able to find considerable commonalities in their work with communities. This transnational comparison may be familiar to those of us who work in international development but it was a first for many of the Canadian participants who are doing really interesting work, for example, in government ministries or communities. I think this points to a strength of the K* movement in connecting people that might not otherwise talk.
The conference illustrated the range and scope of K* work. For example, Jacquie Brown, National Implementation Research Network who works helping communities to implement science, has learnt how this piece fits within the broader scope of K*.  For me, this seeing how different kinds of K* roles are played and how they intersect is important.  

In this video, I share some of my reflections at the time: brokering in the Canadian context including an  examples of brokering at the point of research commissioning:  power dynamics in brokering; and the way that informing role of knowledge brokering is getting a “bum rap” compared to more relational knowledge brokering work. I also get distracted by bangs, crashes and the emergence of breakfast!  

Critiques and the importance of engaging with them

The conference has generated some robust critiques. For example, Enrique Mendizabal sparked a discussion on his blog, On Think Tanks with a range of critiques including whether knowledge brokers are required, how knowledge is shared, and a critique of elitist professionalisation of this field. Scroll to the bottom of his blog post to read the responses, including mine. Meanwhile, Jap Pels argued that the nature of the debate at K* was pretty basic knowledge-sharing stuff.

I think both of these critiques raise interesting points but I think they constitute arguments For K*, not against it. K* recognises that the knowledge work is changing and proliferating, that there is considerable experience and understanding that is not shared across the different spaces in which the role is played. It aims to bring together bodies of expertise (for example that which Jaap Pels points to) to raise the game of all practitioners. It will hopefully provide spaces for debates and engagement with the kinds of critiques that Enrique raises.   

So what next for K*?

The conference generated a range of areas for further collaborative action, and plans for taking the K* initiative goes from here. 

Areas for further collaborative action included:
  • Understanding impact: a group agreed to share the tools data collection tools they are already using, I’ll be participating in this group, building on work of Knowledge Brokers Forum
  • K* in developing countries: a predominantly African group explored the particular dimensions of K* work in their contexts generating a number of action points
A group of participants gathered on Saturday to work out what next for K* as a whole. Consolidation of the K* Green Paper is considered an important next step – co-organiser  Louise Shaxson will be leading this work. There are ideas of developing a more formalised network, which will be led by UNU-INWEH in the first instance.   

UNU, who have led this process so far, remain committed and aim to get the support of the UNU governance. The World Bank has already provided financial support. Support from such international bodies is important as it will embed the international nature of this initiative, it is not without its risks!    

So to borrow again from StarWars, the force is, for now, with K*.  The scale and ambition of the initiative together with some indications of funding and high profile support suggest it has a future. However it faces both practical and fundamental challenges.

Practical challenges include maintaining ownership and momentum on behalf of the largely volunteer force taking it forward for now, identifying its niche and building connections around such a fragmented field of practice.

More fundamental challenges lie in ensuring that it really can generate value that will improve knowledge-policy-practice interfaces, rather than providing a talking shop for elitist actors.   

Catherine Fisher is a member of the K* Conference International Advisory Committee.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

More on Change: systems, principles, and learning

By Elise Wach

I am back to talk about change following on from my previous postings (Change is hard and Change is hard but not impossible) on how you change a sector, Here are some reflections from the latest IRC Triple-S learning retreat.

IRC is attempting to change the way water is provided in rural communities by:
  1. changing the way things work at the level of rural communities so that water is available to everyone indefinitely, and
  2. changing the water sector to enable this to happen. 
I think it is easy to get lost in the frameworks and theories that attempt to explain how to achieve these changes. For example, there are a number of different frameworks proposed for influencing policy and measuring that influence (for example Crewe and Young 2002, Court and Young 2003, Steven 2007, Gladwell 2000, etc.). These provide useful insights as to what might make a difference, but at the end of the day we need to remember that these are complex and unique systems that we are trying to change: so there is no ‘best practice’! 

Danny Burns’ seminar at IDS yesterday on "How Change Happens" helped remind me that while it is not necessarily labelled as such, Triple-S is essentially using a Systemic Action Research (PDF) approach: their larger (systems) view of the water sector and iterative learning processes enable them to recognise and respond to opportunities for change.

Image from: 
In attempting to influence policy, for example, Triple-S is not just looking at written policy documents (although this is one piece of Triple-S work).  But they recognise that policy change results from and is indicated by changes in discourse, perceptions, agendas, networks, political contexts, and institutions.  And that a multitude of stakeholders are involved in those changes, including journalists, NGO workers, researchers, finance ministers, and even people who post on Twitter. They recognise that certain events (such as a change in government) can greatly accelerate or completely block policy changes. 

And that the right evidence and information at the right time delivered to the right people could make a difference.  So the Triple-S approach is built on the assumption that changing policy doesn’t entail following a formula but instead recognising and responding to opportunities and trigger points.

At the rural community level, Triple-S is trying to ensure that the rural water sector takes into account a variety of factors in order to ensure that water services are provided to everyone indefinitely.  So this means looking at life-cycle costs, mechanisms for transparency and accountability, possible alternative service providers, accounting for the multiple uses of water, etc. etc.  

But does viewing these issues with a systemic lens mean that we become paralysed by the complexity?  Danny Burns pointed out yesterday that the key is to focus on action rather than on consensus.  To focus on the actions that different actors can take that can change the system.  Or as Bob Williams explains in his the Ottawa Charter approach (doc), it will be a ‘strategically selected jigsaw of people and organisations doing what they are most effective at’ that will create lasting change, rather than Triple-S trying to change the sector on its own.

Triple-S isn’t trying to get consensus around a specific approach to achieving sustainable rural water supply, but is instead trying to get everyone on board with basic set of principles for sustainable services and providing a range of resources and tools and building capacities (look out for new trainings in the near future) to put those principles in action. They are leveraging existing institutions and structures, and working closely with individuals and organisations to facilitate ownership.

But getting people to wrap their heads around the concept of changing their principles is a big obstacle.  People want tools and approaches that they can go put into action, and while Triple-S is providing a range of these, success starts with viewing rural water supply completely differently: it isn’t ‘the Service Delivery Approach’ but ‘a Service Delivery Approach’. 

Another obstacle Triple-S is facing relates to the way in which evidence is perceived.  So there are people who say, ‘this is all fine and good in theory, but is it really possible? Can we really achieve both sustainability and scale? Where is the evidence?’  Evidence is a strong word.  Today, it usually refers to a call for a ‘rigorous’ approach like a randomised control trial.  But if you want to find out if services are provided forever, then how long do you have to wait for the RCT results?  And here is where I cannot resist but refer to the brilliant example of the limitations of RCTs – would you doubt that a parachute would make jumping out of a plane safer just because an RCT has not proven it?  I think this highlights the need for the development community to reflect on what we consider to be evidence.     

But I don’t think that these obstacles are insurmountable, especially given that Triple-S’ approach enables it to recognise and respond to opportunities and challenges while remaining focused.  One of the Triple-S pillars is for the rest of the rural water sector to have ‘a strong learning and adaptive capacity’.  I see this as pre-requisite for success in the other two pillars, and in the rural water sector in general.  But achieving this is....well, complex.